The title for this week’s lecture theme, “The Next Greatest Generation,” suggests optimism and boundless potential, for my peers and me. What we really crave, however, is candor. Chautauqua is a place that thrives on messages of hopeful promise. But what made this week’s presentations from Chris Hayes and Paula Kahumbu so compelling was their honesty about the scope of the challenges that our generation faces, be it the specific case of Kenya, facing relentless greed of poachers and the markets they serve, or the broader decline of trust in major institutions within the United States. Hayes and Kahumbu both attempt to speak truth to a power structure that they realize is deeply entrenched, and it is this context that made their presentations so fully credible. Kahumbu’s exhaustive campaign to end elephant poaching — from cleverly redesigned currency to ubiquitous receipt stamps and billboards — was an object lesson in how fearless and ambitious young people must be if they want to mount a serious challenge to market-driven greed and the political passivity it engenders. Dalia Mogahed also provided some inspiration grounded in reality when she spoke of the courage of Muslim youth in demanding a voice in their societies’ governance — but against a backdrop of social neglect, born of greed and complacency from the oligarchies that ruled both their governments and their economies (which may sound familiar to those who heard Hayes as well.)
When Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi set fire to 12 tons of illegal ivory in 1989, conservationists like Paula Kahumbu thought the end of elephant slaughter was in sight. And it was — until now.
Following that demonstration, poaching numbers dropped for nearly 20 years. But recently, worldwide demand for ivory has increased, which means that African elephants are in more danger of becoming extinct than ever before.
Kahumbu, the executive director of WildlifeDirect in Nairobi, Kenya, delivered Tuesday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater, the second under the week’s theme of “The Next Greatest Generation.” WildlifeDirect works to save elephants and endangered species living in Kenya’s forests, savannas and plains.
One gets the sense that if Paula Kahumbu wanted to, and if the laws of nature would relax and permit her just a tiny experiment for just a tiny moment, she could stand face to face with the little girl she once was and make that girl proud. Then, in a gesture of quiet camaraderie, the girl might thrust into Kahumbu’s hands the critter she had found on her latest nature expedition so that they could delight in its beauty.
At today’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture in the Amphitheater, Kahumbu will present a lecture titled “The Crisis Facing Elephants in Africa,” a topic she said is very close to her heart. She will describe the raw reality of the elephant crisis in Africa, where 30,000 elephants — more than the number of elephants throughout the entire country of Kenya, the fourth-largest elephant population in the world — were poached last year. If poaching continues at this rate, Kahumbu said, there may not be any elephants left in Kenya in 10 years.
Column by Paula Kahumbu
Africa is facing an unprecedented crisis of elephant poaching that threatens to wipe out the species in a decade. As poachers gun down elephant matriarchs, and destroy their families, buyers of ivory in countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand purchase exquisite ivory carvings of their gods, and believe that they are somehow worshiping God. Don’t they know that their consumer habits are killing nature? Don’t they know that Nature is God?
The situation in China is particularly hazardous. The domestic markets for ivory in China are legal and sanctioned by the government, which denies the link between the illegal trade and the illegal killing of elephants. Yet studies conducted by National Geographic IFAW, the EIA, Save the Elephants and others reveal that over 86 percent of ivory being sold in shops in China is from illegal sources. The Chinese government says Africa is to blame and demands that African nations crack down on poaching.